Anger is common in the workplace. People get upset with other people, circumstances, and situations. We get angry when we feel afraid, sad, threatened, insecure, disappointed — when things are out of our control. Anger elicits a response when other efforts fail to do so, which can give a false sense of control. Anger is uncomfortable for others to experience, so they often do whatever it takes to put an end to their discomfort — which often means placating the angry person by giving what the person wants.
The Straw That Breaks the Camel's Back
Everyone gets angry, and everyone has gotten angry with the wrong people for the wrong reasons at the wrong times. For most people, the expression of anger represents the culmination of feelings they can no longer control. However, the actual event that sends them over the edge is often something minor that might not even be related to the reasons they're angry. The challenge for you as the manager is to identify and expose the underlying issues. Here's an example.
Carolyn, an administrative assistant in the accounting department, blew up when Stephen, an accounts payable clerk, stopped at her desk to tell her the break room was out of coffee. “I've had it! Get your own damn coffee!” she screamed at him. “I'm not the only one in this department who can walk two lousy blocks to the store to buy a package of fine grind! It doesn't take a college degree! Just go get it yourself!”
John, the department manager, heard Carolyn shouting and came out of his office to see what was going on. He asked her to take a walk with him. Once they were outside the building, he asked her what had happened. Still agitated, Carolyn repeated her exasperation that everyone in the department seemed to believe buying coffee was her responsibility and hers alone. “I don't even drink coffee!” she said. “Nowhere in my job description does it say that it's my job to buy the coffee! No one notices anything else I do, but when we run out of coffee, everyone comes running to me!”
John immediately agreed that it was not Carolyn's job to buy coffee. It wasn't even a job responsibility at all, for anyone. It was a pattern the department slipped into because she had once been willing to do it, he observed, but it certainly wasn't an aspect of her job. John assured Carolyn that he would post a memo asking the coffee drinkers to decide among themselves how to maintain the coffee supply.
As they walked and talked, it became clear to John that Carolyn was very frustrated because her job was not giving her the opportunities to advance that she had anticipated it would when she took the job three years ago. In her career plan, she was to have been an accounting clerk by this time — but here she was, still an admin assistant running to the store to buy coffee. “I know just as much as the other clerks, probably more, but no one notices that I'm the one who corrects their statements and records,” Carolyn told John. “There have been three openings in receivables in the past six months, but you've selected someone else each time.”
John explained that the department used educational requirements to screen applicants, and that Carolyn didn't have an undergraduate degree with a major in the any of the required fields. He agreed that she did have exemplary knowledge of the department and its functions, and said he would check with HR to see if there was a way to flex the education requirements to accommodate Carolyn's degree in communications. John also reminded Carolyn that he had an open-door policy because he wanted people to come to him with their concerns. If she had come to talk to him when the job openings were first posted, he could have talked to HR then. As it was, there weren't any vacancies now, and he didn't know when one would surface. John and Carolyn agreed to meet in one week to discuss what John was able to find out from HR.
Carolyn felt unappreciated and unfairly overlooked when it came to promotional opportunities. This aroused nagging doubts about whether she truly was qualified for the job she wanted to have; if no one noticed how good she was, maybe she wasn't really that good. So she tried even harder to get John and others in her department to notice her work and recognize her abilities — she left Post-It notes on people's desks whenever she corrected paperwork they submitted that was incomplete, and joined in on discussions about department procedures and accounting matters. That no one picked up on these attempts to gain recognition further fueled both her frustration and her self-doubt.
When is anger more than blowing off steam?
Anger becomes dangerous when others feel threatened by the person's expression of it. Such expressions may include direct or indirect threats, yelling, actions such as slamming or throwing things, and physical gestures or contact.
Assuaging the Situation
As Carolyn's manager, John should have had a better understanding of Carolyn's career goals. Career planning was a key part of the company's performance standards and evaluation process. Each employee met with his or her manager every six months to review progress toward stated goals and objectives. If Carolyn was vague in these meetings, John should have pinned her down at least to be assured that he understood what she hoped to accomplish during her employment and in her career. When Carolyn hit crisis mode, however, John reacted swiftly and appropriately:
He removed Carolyn from the scene. When someone bursts into a rage in front of other people, it's nearly impossible for him or her to back down without losing face. Since frustration and fear are among the core emotions that ignite anger, a person in outburst mode is not going to willingly validate them by surrendering. Removing an angry person from any audience removes the need for the person to continue raging. It also provides an opportunity for the person to regain composure and dignity.
He agreed with Carolyn that her feelings were valid. This put them both on the same side, giving them common ground from which to work toward a mutually acceptable solution.
He stayed focused on the issues. While John didn't support Carolyn's behavior, he didn't criticize it, either. He directed the discussion to tangibles — Carolyn's disappointment and frustration about not being promoted, and the company policies that impeded her efforts. This allowed John to present possible solutions.
He concluded the discussion with tangible actions and a follow-up plan. Without making promises he might not be able to keep, John told Carolyn exactly what he would do to try to resolve her frustration and when they would meet for further discussions.
Carolyn's anger of course had nothing to do with poor Stephen, whose words simply happened to be the trigger that released Carolyn's frustrations.